Lions and Tigers Really Don’t Get Along

First Published 2011 @ Braintropolis

I graduated High School when I was 16 back in 1983 in the Philippines. I wanted to go to college there (life was good!), but my father had other ideas, unceremoniously packing and sending me off to school here early May of that year. Bummer, really, what with summer back there being April and May, and having spent most of April “exiled” in the province to stay with my uncle — presumably to work and learn a trade, although we all knew Dad just wanted me away for a spell from my friends (bored teens in the summertime aka trouble) — leaving for the States that early in May just meant my summer fun had just gone poof.

My ultimate destination was family in the Washington, DC, area, but with school not starting until September and no big rush to get there, I first spent a week in Anaheim, California, for the National Computer Conference (NCC) — now that was cool and huge — then Redwood City up north by Silicon Valley to visit and stay with another uncle for a couple of weeks.

Redwood City was nice… and exceedingly boring. Not really Redwood City’s fault — I was 16, used to getting around on my own, on the verge of young adulthood, and barely into it when I suddenly found myself in a land and environment I not only wasn’t too familiar with, I didn’t have a car or a driver’s license. That was my first lesson: To get around in the US, at least the parts I was going to find myself in, getting a license and car was job one.

But that wasn’t happening anytime soon. Worse, kids my age were still in school at that point, with the American summer not due to start for a few more weeks. Dang.

Not that my uncle’s home was a dud. Far from it. It was gorgeous, somewhere I’d love to be right this second — huge, Jacuzzi, man-made lake, sun deck, dock, power boat, pool table — the man lived pretty gosh-darned well. Not that that mattered for more than a day, however, to a 16-year-old with no one to hang out with and no wheels to get anywhere.

Marine World Africa USA LogoOne other nice thing about that house: It was about a couple of miles or so away from the original Marine World Africa USA theme park. The park’s no longer there — last I checked, it had relocated to Vallejo in the mid-80s and is now called something else — but back then, although not all that close in the grand scheme of things, I figured when I got really bummed about not having anything to do and no one to do it with, I could walk to Marine World from my uncle’s house. Which is exactly what I did one weekday morning.

I hadn’t planned on going that day, not that I was doing much planning about anything, but the point is that just out of the blue, after breakfast that morning, I felt like doing the park all by my lonesome. Talk about fortuitous. I ended up witnessing something that most definitely was not on anybody’s agenda — not then, not ever. Here’s what I saw.

You’ve probably heard of the late Gunther Gebel-Williams, the beefy long blond-locked German animal trainer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fame. To this day, if someone mentions trained lions and tigers, I think him. Now, heck if I know if he ever performed at Marine World Africa USA, but you can’t really blame folks for thinking that he did even if it turns out that he really didn’t — for a number of years, his visage and name were so synonymous with “animal trainer,” particularly of large cats, that everybody seemed to start hiring beefy long blond-haired animal trainers with German-sounding names. That day at Marine World Africa USA, there was such a shirtless German-monikered blondie cracking the whip for the park’s big cat attraction — in all likelihood one of the look-alikes and name sound-alikes and not the famous trainer himself, but I honestly couldn’t tell you for sure since I really wasn’t paying all that much attention to him. I was watching his cats.

That day in particular, the announcer was proud to proclaim that it was the very first time (maybe for Marine World Africa USA, at least) that lions and tigers were performing in the ring at the same time. Apparently, the two cats really do not get along and typically do not perform in the same ring together (now there’s something new I didn’t know!). But Mr. Muscular Shirtless Long-Haired German Blondie down in the ring cracking his whip and directing the wild maned lions and the gorgeous tigers to and fro — well, seemed that he was man enough to get the man-eaters working together.

It wasn’t a very big caged ring. Trying to remember it all now almost three decades later, I’d say I’d be very generous estimating the ring’s diameter at 20 yards, but let’s put it at that number. The back of the ring was up against a wall, the middle of which was where the cats entered and exited; you couldn’t see much of anything beyond that. In front of the ring was where we, the audience, sat, on fixed chairs going around the ring, probably going up maybe 10 rows. It really wasn’t all that big — the whole thing was in an enclosure, maybe to help keep the animals from getting spooked.

I was about four rows away from the ring and dead center. Since it was a weekday, the show wasn’t packed — half full, if that — so I really couldn’t have asked for a better time and vantage point to take the whole thing in.

It was an impressive show. Mr. Muscular Shirtless Long-Haired German Blondie had full control of his cats. They were moving around the ring at his command, jumping and pacing all about, leaping effortlessly from one pedestal to another, through rings and other obstacles… and all so precise and measured! And they worked the “lions vs. tigers” thing to full effect, having the two sets of cats alternating closely on the various tasks. All in all a good show.

Then it got really interesting.

I think the show was nearing the end at this point, and the lions and tigers were alternating leaping and posing on the pedestals one more time. First the lions, jumping up on the platforms distributed evenly along the ring’s perimeter and directed to wave their paws at the audience. Round of applause. Whip CRACK! The lions jumped off and the tigers on, the lions directed to walk around the center getting ready to exit through the back. Most of the lions had already moved to the rear, save for one who was still busy trying to navigate his way back. He was right in front of me, just four rows away. Round of applause. Whip CRACK! The tigers jumped off the pedestals, as precisely and lithely as gorgeous big cats can be. Except the one nearest to me landed squarely on the back of the last lion by accident.

That’s when the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Sharks vs. Jets? Amateurs. I’m telling you, you haven’t seen a rumble until you’ve seen lions and tigers go at it. There were at least four cats on each side, quite possibly more. All thought they had of exiting the ring completely forgotten — they all jumped into the fight. Roaring, snarling, slashing, biting, chomping, clawing, wrestling, it was all there in front of me. And fast. Heck if you could keep track of which cat was doing what to whom. Blood? Yeah, they got bloody, but surprisingly enough, not as much as you would think. But yup, those cats were getting injured.

The cage around the ring — that started shaking and swaying as the cats threw each other around and slammed their bodies against it. That’s when I realized the damn cage around the ring wasn’t fixed and permanent. It was one of those things you see at the circus that could be easily assembled and disassembled as-needed. That pretty much explained the audience screaming and running around me, looking for a quick exit. Me? Butt glued to my seat, mesmerized.

I think the spectacle of the big cat fight was enough to keep me watching, but what got me leaning forward for a better view was this: Mr. Muscular Shirtless Long-Haired German Blondie was not only in the thick of it, he had his beefy arms around their necks trying to pull the enraged snarling beasts apart! I don’t care where you’re from or what you’ve seen and experienced… that was impressive.

It took a while, but eventually he managed to clear that ring, but not by his lonesome. Marine World Africa USA workers managed to come out and assist with a couple of fire hoses — they started spraying the cats. It looked like they were working hard not to blast them too strongly lest they hurt them, while Mr. Muscular Shirtless Long-Haired German Blondie directed their hosing efforts, barking orders while always seemingly having at least one of his cats in a headlock. Slowly, one-by-one, he led each cat to the rear exit. The cats were really P.O.’d and wanted to keep on fighting, continuously roaring and snarling and resisting everything, but slowly, the trainer got each through the exit and into the hands of more handlers.

Whew! The ring finally empty, I sat back and took a quick look around me. The place had emptied — there were, however, still five of us there in our seats. The announcer came on the PA: “Marine World Africa USA would like to thank all of you who did not panic and remained in your seats.” Yeah, the five of us thought that was really funny.

One more thing I learned that day: A really pissed off big cat stays really pissed off. Although they had managed to bring the cats to their holding cells, for hours after the incident and throughout much of the park, you could hear enraged roars and snarling from the severely agitated kitties. It sure made for an interesting day at the park. So, if you ever encounter a lion or tiger — or any huge cat for that matter — do not ever ever ever, under any circumstances, piss it off. If you’re going to kill it, kill it — do not futz with it.

P.S. I’ve never seen this incident mentioned anywhere. Not then in the papers (although, to be fair, I wasn’t looking that hard), and definitely not now, online. Let me know if anyone comes across any info on this.

UPDATE: Days after this post first appeared on my personal blog, someone commented that she was a worker at Marine World when this happened (Internet = small world!), confirming that not only did the incident take place, I described the event pretty well. So there we have it, folks, and thanks for the confirmation, kind stranger!

UPDATE #2: Another confirmation! A reader from Chicago said she and her boyfriend (now husband) were there that day too, and even talked to Jim Fowler (the late host of TV’s Wild Kingdom) about it! Here’s what she said:

“I read your article and our experiences were nearly identical. One difference was, besides the fire hoses, the staff outside the cage used fire extinguishers and broom sticks. I was horrified the cats would be injured. I remember it more traumatically and still can’t hear the sound of big cats at a zoo without feeling anxious. I also remember hearing the big cats growl all day. My day was ruined, but certainly memorable. I posted about Jim Fowler passing away on Facebook. I was fortunate to see him in Sioux Falls, SD in the mid 90’s. I told him about it and he knew well of it. Said it was a mistake from the beginning and had become a case study.”